I love the SCE. It is my favorite conference of the year, and I always look forward to attending. This year was no exception. The conference met in Seattle January 9-12, and the theme, chosen by President Allen Verhey, was “Reviving the Theological Traditions.” In his welcome to the conference (in the program book), Verhey explained that he hoped the conference:

…will prompt important conversations: conversations about different particular traditions and their contemporary relevance, conversations about tradition itself and the danger of traditionalism, conversations about the handing down of traditions, about the criteria for ‘selective retrieval,’ and about the vocation of Christian ethics both to hand down and to test received traditions.

While Verhey was unable to be present at the meeting, I believe his vision was fulfilled. While some of the papers from the conference will be published in the Journal for the Society of Christian Ethics (edited by former CMT contributor Tobias Winright and Mark Allman), the journal cannot accommodate all papers and even if they are published, that can take up to a year. So, this post is the first in a series reporting on the conference. I will begin by describing Lisa Sowle Cahill’s plenary address, and the response by Stacey Floyd-Thomas. Both provide examples of some of the methodological challenges faced by Christian feminists as they engage the theological traditions.

Before I begin, I should probably note that what follows is based on my personal notes and my own memory. I do not have a copy of the paper or response, nor do I have a recording of the session. I invite readers who were present at the conference to offer corrections in the comments box or by email so that I can be as accurate as possible! (Thanks!)

Lisa Sowle Cahill, Monan Professor of Christian Ethics at Boston College, is a very influential feminist scholar, not only because of her writings and published lectures but because of her mentoring of graduate students.  Cahill’s plenary was entitled “Catholic Feminists and Traditions: Renewal, Reinvention, and Replacement.”

Cahill began by advocating for a broad and flexible definition of feminism, explaining that feminism is “not just white academic middle class feminism.” In Catholic circles in particular, she described a need for reclaiming and renewing traditions. But what do we mean by traditions? Cahill explained that by “traditions” she means ideas, customs, practices, and beliefs that are handed on. And these are always undergoing change, reconstruction, perversion, and even distortion. The process of handing on tradition is thus complex and dynamic.

Christian feminists apply a three-fold hermeneutic to tradition: first, a hermeneutic of appreciation; second, a hermeneutic of suspicion; third, a hermeneutic of praxis. In this first step, feminists appreciate the wisdom of the past and recognize the value of this wisdom for contemporary Christians. This step focuses on recovery of important traditions and privileging of some traditions (the wise traditions) over others. In the second step, feminists recognize that traditions have mediated dominant ideologies, some of which are harmful and degrading to women. In other words, not all traditions have the same moral value. In the third step, feminists are constructive and forward-looking, focusing especially on embodied praxis as liberating for contemporary women. This step involves the passing on of liberating traditions.

Cahill explained that this process is intentionally ecclesial for Catholic feminists. There is faith in the Catholic tradition as authoritative; Cahill spoke of God’s self-disclosure in and through traditions. But she also described the Catholic tradition as “internally diverse.” The local expression of the universal church is plural as diverse local churches challenge received traditions. Cahill also framed Catholic feminist approaches as in some cases “prophetic,” noting that there is “inevitable conflict” in the ecclesial deliberations which follow such engagements.

The bulk of the presentation was spent in describing different ways that Catholic feminists have interpreted and used tradition. Cahill grouped feminists into different “models,” but even as she described similarities within the models and in how those women engage the tradition she noted variety within each of the models. Provocatively, she began with Mary Daly, whose classic text Beyond God the Father was perceived as heretical to some, controversial but ultimately harmless to others, and liberating for others. “Mary Daly does not fit any of my models,” Cahill explained, while the audience chuckled. She returned to Daly at the end.

In Cahill’s four Post-Vatican II Models of Catholic Feminists’ Use of Tradition we have the Augustinian, the Neo-Thomistic, the Neo-Franciscan, and the Junian models.

Women in the Augustinian model appropriate tradition in a similar way to Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Ratzinger, and/or DeLubac.

Cahill described Catholic feminists whose work is critical of so-called “radical feminism,” and who focus on the “feminine genius” and the special role women play in the family and in society, noting Mary Ann Glendon as an example of this method or school of thought. Drawing on the personalist insights of Blessed John Paul II, this group of Catholic feminists find the theology of the body to be a valuable appropriation of tradition and a renewal of biblical sexual theology for the contemporary church.

The next model Cahill presented was the Neo-Thomist model, and she labeled as “progressive Neo-Thomists” those who align themselves with thinkers like Rahner, Chenu, Congar, and Murray. These feminist thinkers appreciate the goodness of the created world and attend to the data of science as a good. They would describe their worldview as historically conscious, and their epistemology sees truth as emerging not a finished product. Well known feminist thinkers in this category include Julie Clague, Barbara Andolsen, Susan Ross, Cristina Traina, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Christine Gudorf, Margaret Farley, Christine Firer Hinze, Patricia Beattie Jung, Mary Hunt, Jean Porter, Linda Hogan, and Anne Patrick (all of whom Cahill mentioned by name, and I probably missed some other names). Cahill focused here not just on the topics these feminist write about, but about the methods they employ, which she characterized as a kind of moral realism that is historical and contextual. Cahill also noted how many of these scholars privilege social teachings, focusing especially on justice for women.

The third model Cahill presented is the Neo-Franciscan model. Framing this initially as a generational difference between Gen X/Yers and the women in the Neo-Thomist model, Cahill went on to identify different influcences, methods, applied concerns in contrast to the Neo-Thomist model. Women doing theology/ethics in this model, according to Cahill, are influenced by Pinckaers, Hauerwas, Romero, and Day. Neo-Franciscans see their work in the light of their vocation to holiness and call to service. They might live in small faith communities, engage in direct care for the poor, practice nonviolence, or live in voluntary poverty. They are nourished by the Eucharist and think of their faith as counter-cultural. Cahill noted that these women may not specify gender equality in the same way as women who identify in a Neo-Thomist approach. The theological ethics written by women in this model focuses on recovering theological traditions, especially around liturgy, prayer, and discipleship but perhaps less emphasis on changing social structures. Cahill explicitly mentioned as belonging to this model Julie Hanlon Rubio (regular contributor here!), Mary Doyle Roche, Kelly Johnson, Jana Bennett (regular contributor here!), and some of the authors of the blog, WIT (Women in Theology).

These three models—Augustinian, Neo-Thomistic, and Neo-Franciscan—are models that Cahill identifies as emerging out of the theology of Vatican II.

The final model Cahill presented is the Junian model, named for Junia of Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Romans 16:7). Cahill described the work of Latina, Mujerista, Womanist, African, and Asian women whose approach to the theological traditions is more radical. In this model, the idea of “usable church traditions” is more contested, in part because of the experienced of being colonized and the rise of postcolonial theology, but there is also an appreciation of other extra-ecclesial traditions (for example, some womanist scholars draw on slave narratives or spirituals as sources for theology- see my recent post on the film 12 Years a Slave for examples of this). Junians draw on indigenous traditions and resist the claim that the Christian tradition must remain “Western” to be authentic to its mission. This push towards a global church that resists identifying “authenticity” with Euro-centric biases is a major contribution of the work of this group of scholars. These women ask, How can I be part of a church that perpetuates gender subordination? Cahill reminds us that Junia did just that: she is an example of an early female disciple of Jesus in a gender unequal church community yet she rejoiced in her common baptism and in the good news that Jesus brings. Junian women see her as a role model for navigating these difficult ecclesial questions. And despite writing from different corners of the world and on different particular concerns, Junian women are united internationally through orders of women religious, activism, university work, and conferences. Examples of women named in this model included Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz and Agnes Brazal.

In the final part of her plenary address, Cahill explained that Catholic ethical-political traditions are not defined by a specific cultural mediation, figure, or model, but by a constellation of commitments. According to Cahill, these are shared commitments by women in all four models. I suppose you could call this the “common ground” grande finale of the address. Despite different approaches to the theological traditions as seen in the four models, there are some things these feminist theologians share, namely:

1. difference-in-unity

2. moral realism

3. social meliorism

4. human equality

5. preferential option for the poor

6. interreligious dialogue and cooperation.

Cahill then returned to Mary Daly, the radical feminist theologian who did not fit into any of her four models, and quoted from Daly’s Beyond God the Father in order to emphasize the dynamic power of the Spirit alive in the work of many different women, albeit in many different ways.

Stacey Floyd-Thomas responded to Cahill’s plenary and then both speakers responded to questions from the audience. Floyd-Thomas, who is an Associate Professor at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, entitled her prepared remarks as “The Faith We Love and the Facts We Abhor.” Beginning with lyrics from Sweet Honey’s “Women Should Be a Priority,” Floyd-Thomas noted that the problem Christian women face is that gender equality is more often a matter of speculation than a reality. A poignant example Floyd-Thomas cited is the strange feeling she had when watching a group of white men debate the nature of “legitimate rape” on public television. Two dominant concerns for Floyd-Thomas are context (how do we make sense of the faith we love the facts we abhor?) and essence (reminding us that women aren’t the only humans with gender). Noting critiques of some dominant strands of theology and even feminist theology, she quoted Patricia Bell-Scott:

 All the Blacks are men

All the Women are white

But some of us are Brave.

Floyd-Thomas noted that transforming patriarchy and misogyny in faith traditions is not easy, and for many on the so-called “margins,” the so-called “core of tradition” is a scare word. For Floyd-Thomas, the recovery of some traditions and the rejection of others is a difficult and yet necessary component of the fluid process of coming to faith in the contemporary world. For reforming feminists, tradition offers a liberating context and a hope that can anchor you even in the midst of turmoil. Floyd-Thomas encouraged us to think beyond the contributions of Catholic women to women in other churches and faith traditions. She cited as examples of this method of feminism Lettie Russell, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Judith Plaskow, Carol Christ, and Elisabeth Schussler-Fiorenza. Floyd-Thomas also called attention to the generations of women whose names we do not know but who are responsible for keeping the faith and passing along the faith. She refers to Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, “were it not for the women,” we would not have the faith “tradition” we claim today.

For womanist theologians, the history of chattel slavery offers evidence of the problem with simply locating “tradition” in the stories of the powerful. For Shawn Copeland, Diana Hayes, and Floyd-Thomas herself, it is a problem when the “gatekeepers” of the tradition call women of color primal, problematic, marginal, or monstrous. Recalling last year’s SCE address by well known Black Theologian James Cone, “the cross is not good news for the powerful.” And yet these reflections raise serious questions that cannot be answered in a simplistic faith statement. What exactly needs to be retrieved? How are women of color to value “tradition,” especially when “tradition” doesn’t seem to value women of color?

For Floyd-Thomas, a way forward must privilege the liberating gospel of Jesus Christ. It must make women’s flourishing a priority. Women must be empowered to be the scribes of our times. We have a moral mandate for this work, she said.

There is much to praise on both addresses, and I learned a great deal and was engergized in my work because of the courage of Cahill, Floyd-Thomas, and the many women named in their talks. A basic take-away for others less familiar with the landscape of Catholic feminist theological ethics is: WOW! Women are writing a lot of amazing texts and doing wonderfully critical work! Many have responded in the blogosphere to Pope Francis’ statement that we need “a deeper theology of woman,” and yet we have here a clear presentation of the vibrant discourse in Catholic feminist theology, not just in the U.S. context but all over the world. I’m grateful to Cahill and Floyd-Thomas for raising awareness of this diversity, and for naming so many scholars in their talks. If nothing else, I can encourage my students to “follow the footnotes” for a comprehensive view of women working in feminist ethics. Last year, James Cone asked all of us who teach Christian Ethics to review our syllabi and analyze them. Do we in fact teach “White Christian Ethics” (white theology) or do we teach the whole spectrum of theo-ethical discourse? I could encourage the same of us this year. As we review our syllabi, how many feminist thinkers do we see? Do we present students with the full range of feminist voices, or do we pick one reading from Ruether or Farley and present that as “Catholic feminism”? How do we select our course readings, and why? These questions remain important for teachers, and academic conferences are a good time to realize that some of us should probably update our syllabi.

These talks generated a lot of fruitful questions and conversations, and eight hours later in the bar of the hotel the conversations went on. Some of us were explicitly self-referential. Where do I fit in to this typology? We tried to place ourselves as Augustinian, Neo-Thomist, Neo-Franciscan, or Junian. Some disagreed with the placement (Is Rubio really Neo-Franciscan? I thought she’d be Neo-Thomist? … Can a white woman in the U.S. be Junian?) But before long, this deteriorated. Some decided that what we were discussing was no longer the importance of women’s voices in the doing of theology, but a new set of categories, boxes in which to put someone, a new label that functions to dismiss instead of to welcome (as in, Oh, she’s an Augustinian, so I don’t need to read her new book). Some thought that the naming of common ground at the end was pedagogically useful, but that the descriptions were too vague. Few women cited in Cahill’s talk are actively writing in the area of “interreligious dialogue,” some noted, so how can that be a shared commitment? And what does “difference in unity” really mean anyway? It was a fun conversation among friends, but the questions are real.

I mentioned that I have been reading Anne Patrick’s new book, Conscience and Calling: Ethical Reflections on Catholic Women’s Church Vocations, and that Patrick has a similar typology in her book. Patrick calls it “A Map of Women’s Responses to Ecclesial Oppression.” She begins with the caveat from H. Richard Neibuhr, whose typology she transforms from the classic text, Christ and Culture (1951). Niebuhr reminds us that the method of typology is “historically inadequate.” Patrick remarks:

The categories are useful as an aid to thinking but should not be applied rigidly to data more complex than any heuristic tool can accommodate. No typology or map can capture the rich variety of life, but properly understood a typology can help to orient those who are searching for answers to ethical questions. (60).

Patrick’s typology has 5 types (61-73):

1. Women Against the Church (ex: Mary Daly)

2. Women Content with the Church (ex: Helen Hull Hitchcock of Women for Faith and Family)

3. Women Above the Church (Ex: some feminist spirituality groups)

4. Women and Church in Paradox (Ex: Historian Linda McMillan)

5. Women Transforming Church (Ex: Sandra Schneiders)

What I find interesting in comparing Cahill’s and Patrick’s models are that there are some areas of overlap in the mapping scheme. I think that Cahill’s Augustinians are closely aligned with Patrick’s Type 2, for example. But it is also interesting to me that they do not align exactly. Cahill said that Mary Daly didn’t fit into any of her models, so perhaps one would focus on Patrick’s 2-5 to find alignment with Cahill’s. But no one in Cahill’s models seems to align with Type 3, and perhaps some of the Neo-Franciscans would be Type 2, but others Type 4 or 5. Cahill identified herself with her own Neo-Thomist model, and Patrick believes Type 5 is the most adequate (73). But both Cahill and Patrick offer a description of the spectrum before they self-identify. I guess it is time for others in different models/types to self-identify and explain what they think is valuable or problematic about this mapping exercise. Patrick is certainly right that no typology can capture the rich variety of life. But the take-away from this (admittedly very long) post is that it is no longer adequate to lump all Catholic feminists together in one group, but more helpful to talk about Catholic feminist approaches (plural) or Catholic feminisms. At the same time, it remains very valuable to point out areas of shared interest, shared concern, and common ground. I’m excited about the state of the discourse today and grateful for the balanced way that Cahill, Floyd-Thomas, and Patrick have tried to map the landscape. Please chime in below with your comments, questions, corrections, or constructive feedback!